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The Importance of Sport Specificity Training

Updated: Mar 29, 2022



Throughout my career, I’ve seen dozens of athletes wishing to get to the next stage of their sport only to fall short. They might develop an injury or simply plateau at a certain level and never improve, which of course could result in stagnation and lack of the positive effects of training on both their body and mind.


What these athletes have in common is they lose sight of the need for specificity training. Also known as sport specific training, this principle promotes the importance of adjusting your training routine in a way that is more intense, emulating the needed speed and power one would exert during a competition or race.


Sport specificity training isn’t just for professional or endurance athletes; all active adults can benefit from training routines designed for their respective sport or even daily activities. Ironman athletes, runners, cyclists, and active adults can teach their bodies to endure physical stress for longer periods of time, recover faster, and perform better in that specific activity (including transitions during racing), allowing them to set and reach their goals instead of staying stagnant.


I know, I know…this all sounds great. But there is a right way and wrong to incorporate this into your workout routine. So that’s what I’m here for….good ol’ Dr. Rob to the rescue, to explain the ins and outs of this very useful workout tool. Let’s dig in!


HOW DOES SPORT SPECIFICITY TRAINING ACTUALLY WORK?


When setting out to perform most sports and physical activities, a basic level of fitness is required. Whether you cycle, play soccer, or run, there needs to be a general level of aerobic conditioning present for you to participate in such activities.


But let’s say you’re a basketball player, already in good shape, who’s wishing to excel in the sport. You want to progress to the next level but don’t know how. This is when the specificity principle of sports conditioning comes into play. To succeed, your training would need to go from the highly general (such as the usual weight training and cardio) to something more specific. If your goal is to emulate Steph Curry, then practicing your three-pointers would be your aim.


If you’re a triathlete, then there are variety of ways to train to improve your form. Transitions, turnover from discipline to discipline (e.g., brick workouts), hill training, speed training, overtaking other athletes, etc. are all skills that can be incorporated within your training to help you become a better athlete.


Even for those who are just active adults, working on daily skills such as squats, deadlifts, and farmer’s carries can be used to help improve your overall ability to simply lift and carry WAY too many bags of groceries at once (rather than taking the bags one at a time….don’t worry, we’re all guilty of doing this, even me!)


To be successful, the exercises will need to mimic the action and skills that are needed in the game or activity. To be a good cyclist, you must practice cycling specifically in the same manner as you would for the race that you will be partaking in. In the same vein, runners and swimmers should train by running and swimming in a way that focuses on maximizing power and efficiency along with supplementary activities for strength.


As a Doctor of Physical Therapy, I’ve been able to help many clients move onto the next stage of the sport or exercise they love. To accomplish this, I make sure that the sport-specific program I recommend:

  1. Mimics the exact movement taking place in the sport/competition,

  2. Involves the type of muscular contraction used in the execution of the skills, and

  3. Develops strength and mobility in the same range of motion as the actual skill

Throughout this blog, I've provided a few quick videos of yours truly as examples of the types exercises to aid in your specificity training.




BENEFITS OF SPECIFICITY TRAINING


When sport-specific training programs are carefully crafted, they can accomplish the proper conditioning of the body and mind to excel through the unique demands. The following is just a short list of the possible benefits I have seen my clients gain:


Increased speed, balance, and endurance

As mentioned earlier, the primary goal of specificity training is to condition the body in preparation for competition or performance that will be used in the target activity. But how does this work exactly? Well, this is when you’ll see that your muscle memory emerges over time for this specific action, eventually allowing it to be performed with little to no conscious effort. This process decreases the need for attention and creates maximum efficiency within the motor and memory systems.


As you train, you’ll be able to master the skills you need and learn the best form to use. You can also progress to learning variations of those skills, which may be even more useful during a game or activity. For example, if you are training for a cycling race, of course you will focus on your speed, power, and the energy systems your body will use in the race. But you should also be sure to train under conditions that will mimic the race itself (e.g. same bicycle, weather conditions, terrain, etc.). By doing so, you’ll ensure to build up to the distance, balance, and pace required.


Less chance of injury


Another huge benefit of sports specific training is reducing the risk of injury. When you customize your training, you begin to develop flexibility and strength in the same range of motion as the actual skill that will in turn make you stronger. Ensuring you have that muscle memory helps reduce the risk of injuring yourself.


Boosts self-esteem


I’ve seen many clients who, once they adhere to an effective training program, gain a certain level of confidence needed to excel in their sport. After they learn how to train properly, they are then able to test their limits and accomplish feats they didn’t think were possible. Incorporating sport specific training into your routine will undoubtedly improve your self-esteem and make you feel happier with yourself, which is important not just in sport, but in everyday life.


Helps athletes train properly


Many of you know that if you wish to excel in a sport, you need to practice that sport regularly. Yes, practice is key, but it’s also crucial that you’re properly engaging in it. If you do not practice properly, you may end up making serious mistakes which will be detrimental to your performance in competitions or races. By working with the right Doctor of Physical Therapy, coach or specialist, sport specific training can help to create a proper program to ensure the correct performance.




CHOOSING THE RIGHT TRAINING BASED ON ENERGY SYSTEMS


So I’ve sold you on the benefits of specificity training….excellent! Now you need to consider what drills and exercises you need to perform to help your training. I recommend you check in with a Doctor of Physical Therapy who specializes in your sport, or a highly qualified strength and conditioning professional, to ensure you are incorporating the correct exercises and skills training. The first step will mostly likely be deciding what energy system you operate in most and focus on catering to that system.


There are three energy systems that are found in the body are aerobic, anaerobic, and phosphagen.


Aerobic (or Oxidative)


Sports or activities that use mainly the aerobic energy system are ones that require low-intensity work over a long period of time, typically anything greater than 2 minutes of continuous work. Examples of this would be running a marathon, completing a spin class, or swimming laps. You can train your aerobic system in several ways: completing active intervals of work for 3 to 5 minutes and rest for 3 to 5 minutes (1:1 ratio), low intensity, steady-state exercise for an extended period, or even circuit training.


Anaerboic (or Glycolysis)


Sports or activities that use mainly the anaerobic energy system are the ones that require high-intensity bursts of 30 seconds to 2 minutes of work and need about double the time of work for recovery. Examples of this would be soccer, hockey, and tennis. The glycolytic system can be trained by doing interval training of 30-60 seconds of any high-intensity work with rest periods of 60-120 seconds. Moderate intensity resistance training with reps between 8 and 12 can also target this system.


Phosphagen


Sports or activities that use mainly the phosphagen energy system are ones that require extremely quick, explosive, high power or maximal movements. These don’t last more than a few seconds (generally less than 10 seconds) and have long periods of time following to recover. Examples of this would be throwing a shot put, running the 100m dash, or swinging a golf club. The phosphagen system can be trained by doing intense movements like sprinting, plyometrics such as box jumps and squat jumps, or even heavy resistance training with low reps.


One point I’d like to make is that each of these systems is not specific to a specific activity or sport; they are interchangeable as there is a flow from one to the other. For example, just because you are running a marathon does not mean that you will not use the phosphagen or anaerobic systems. There will be periods during the race where you will need to go faster (e.g., such as when going uphill to prevent someone from passing you or avoiding obstacles like a tree branch that falls in front of you). This can make you decide to do one of two things: let the person pass you by or slow down to get over the obstacle in your way. Alternatively, you could pick up your speed (anaerobic) to maintain the faster pace of the other person or jump over the obstacle (phosphagen) to maintain your speed. Which would you prefer to keep your performance level high?




ONE LAST NOTE


While sport-specific training is important to help you get to the next stage, you still need to maintain an overall fitness routine. A well-designed training program does not neglect the overall benefits of general fitness that aren't specific to a sport. So please make sure you strike the right balance between general and specificity training to be the most successful in your sport.


So there you have it folks. If you have questions about incorporating specificity training into your routine, please let us know! We would love to hear your goals and assist in any way to make sure you achieve them healthily. To learn more or speak with a Doctor of Physical Therapy, please give us a call at 516-387-4669. And if you would like to follow us along as we present more information about different topics related to endurance athletics, please give us a follow on our Instagram (@ascentptny).

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